Category Archives: Thinking about feeling

Wonky realities and unthinkable thoughts

A radical change in thinking is not something we can always do in a conscious way. If, for example, your reality is broken in some way, the process of recognising this and changing it might be impossible with your conscious mind. Much of the work may be done when asleep, and it can surface in dreams.

We invest a lot in our version of reality. It’s how we navigate and what we base our decisions on. However, our beliefs can turn out to be wrong. We may have trusted the wrong people, we may have invested in something that demonstrably doesn’t work. When this happens, most of us are not quick to respond to new evidence. We hang on to the old belief even as evidence stacks up to refute it. I think we do this because we’ve invested something of ourselves in that belief, and it is our sense of self that would have to change to accommodate having been wrong.

If you carry on doing something that doesn’t work, of course you just dig yourself in deeper. The debt from the unsustainable lifestyle gets bigger. The relationship gets ever more dysfunctional. Your health deteriorates. The less you square up to a problem, the bigger it gets. What might have been manageable when it first became evident, becomes bigger and more difficult. Admitting not only to the mistake, but the consequences of clinging to the mistake becomes ever more costly. So you tell yourself that you can have the thing you’ve been told explicitly isn’t possible. And you keep digging the hole.

I’ve been here.

While I was clinging to a reality that didn’t work, my dreams reduced down to a handful of anxiety stories. Some part of my brain knew perfectly well that I was in a lot of trouble, and was trying to get in touch with the rest of my brain. I didn’t listen, for years. I couldn’t face knowing. I bent what reality I had around the broken bits to try and make it work until everything was distorted and dysfunctional. In the end, I got very ill, and change happened anyway and I had no choice but to deal with how broken my reality had become. At that point, I still couldn’t do much of it consciously.

Anyone practicing spiritual disciplines may feel that they are self aware and in control of their mind. You can do a lot of work to explore your unconscious urges and motivations, and still not be able to recognise that some part of your reality is broken. It is easy to assume that you have the self awareness not to fall into this kind of trap. That you’re too good, too clever, too engaged to be living inside an illusion. In practice, you just have the tool set to make a more detailed and carefully justified illusion. If there’s something you don’t want to consciously look at, no amount of being enlightened will give you the self honesty to easily tackle it.

This is because self honesty isn’t the key issue here. It’s how invested we are in how we think things work. It is possible to hold ideas lightly and feel easy about changing them. If someone came along with a new take on gravity or the nature of atoms, I could go along with that comfortably enough. If something comes along that impacts on a key relationship in my life, I might ignore the evidence rather than face it, because I may be too invested to be able to deal with what’s happening. Would I sacrifice that level of attachment for a more dispassionate view? No. Not being that invested comes at a cost as well. Investment itself is a form of vulnerability, but without that kind of vulnerability everything can only ever be superficial.

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How to experience love

Most people want to be loved. However, feeling loved is not entirely straightforward, because of course we can’t in the normal scheme of things feel an emotion someone else has about us. We can experience their care, warmth or passion and infer from what they do something of how they feel, but we only have as much information as we have a capacity to love.

It annoys me immensely that there are so many people out there touting the idea that to experience love, you have to love yourself. It simply isn’t true. I say this with the confidence of someone who has felt self hatred while being able to deeply love other people. It is the ability to love that gives us the experience of love. What we primarily feel of love, is our own love for others. It is also the basis from which we can infer what others may feel in turn.

If you don’t feel love, you don’t have that warmth and joy permeating you in response to something else. Feeling blissful, blessed, enriched by the experience of the other, comes from inside us. The easiest way to feel love, is to love.

Every now and then, I run into someone who finds the idea of love threatening. There’s a recurring theme of hearing the word as pressure or demand. The idea that ‘I love you’ reduces, demeans or otherwise harms a person is something I’ve repeatedly been confused by. The conclusion I’ve come to is that these are people who do not experience love as I do. Whatever happens when they consider that they love someone, has a very different shape. Or their experience of what happens when someone else loves them does.

If what we experience is a mix of desire, and fear of losing a person, then love can indeed be threatening. If love is a bartering tool – if ‘I love you’ means you have to do something for me; that would make people weird about it. If there only seems to be a finite amount of love in your heart that you have to ration out carefully and someone extra demands a piece by saying ‘I love you,’ that might be hard.

I’ve noticed along the way that people who are warm, affectionate, open hearted and generous don’t tend to manifest this fear. They don’t tend to resent expressions of fondness and affection. People who consider themselves unloveable can be highly resistant to being loved – perhaps in part because they have a story to maintain. People who have stories about love scarcity are much the same.

I experience a great deal of love primarily because I feel a great deal of love – and not just for people. If I can see in what someone else does something that mirrors how I love, I can appreciate it. It is not possible, from the outside, to pour love into a person who doesn’t feel love. There is nothing that can be done by loving that will plug up the feeling of not being loved that comes from not being able to love. I’ve dealt with people who never felt loved, who always needed more proof, more demonstrations, more… more… because I realise now they were looking outside for love to come to them. There was a feeling they craved – and perhaps had once in the form of unconditional parental love – and they crave something to fill them up. But no one else can give you that. You can only find it by feeling.


Grief and love

Grief is the painful but necessary process of dealing with dramatic changes around love. If that which we have loved is gone, there’s a process to go through responding to that. Either we choose to let the love go as well and move on, or we learn how to carry it. We adjust to loving that which is no longer present in our lives. I’ve always felt strongly that no one should be obliged to get over a loss of someone or something they truly loved.

Learning how to carry the grief of loss is not at all like letting go. It is a process of making that love a part of you, no longer dependent on anything exterior to you. To accept the loss, and refuse to let go of the love. To decide that the love you have is bigger than death, bigger than distance, or destruction. I think it’s a good choice to keep what you loved alive by continuing to love when it is no longer there to directly inspire that love.

Sometimes grief takes another form and of the two, I find this one harder to deal with. If we are betrayed by someone we love. If what we loved turns out to be lies and illusion, if we have been manipulated, let down, led astray. If our love has been accepted only to control us and put us on a leash… And there comes a point where this is visible. The object of our love may be right in front of us, just the same as always. What dies here is our capacity for love. The grief that follows the death of love is different from the grief that follows the death of a loved something or someone.

It may be that the illusions were of our own making. We put our faith and trust in an idea we had, and reality can’t bear it out. That hurts, and is likely to bring a lot of soul searching and distress. Unpicking and understanding the illusion after it has been revealed is tough work. Dealing with the memory of love for something unfeasible can be painful, humiliating. It can be waded through, and it is better to be free of such illusions even if the short term cost of dealing with them is really high.

It may be that we have been deliberately misled and betrayed. The death of love in this way is an entirely human issue. A creature won’t do this to us, nor will a landscape, a house, a musical instrument. They are what we are, and if we love such things for what they are they will never deliberately let us down. People are a whole other issue. Whether we love enough to endure betrayal is something you only find out on a case by case basis. Sometimes it may be a good and noble thing to keep loving in the face of terrible let-downs. Sometimes it may be the bars on your prison that keeps you locked in something abusive. Sometimes it is better if love dies, and you live.

Most spiritual traditions uphold the idea that love is good, and ideal and what we should be working with. There’s not much practical advice out there as to what to do to stay sane and functional in face of serious betrayals of trust. We have plenty of cultural information around us about dealing with the loss of what we’ve loved, but precious little to help a person navigate around the death of love itself. We tell each other that love should be eternal and unconditional, and we don’t tell each other what to do when we find we really can’t deliver on that.

As a consequence, the death of love can feel like a personal failing. Having been monumentally betrayed, the victim of this may be left thinking that they should still be able to love and give and feel compassion for the person hurting and harming them. It may seem that the onus is on them to be bigger, kinder, more generous. I know from experience that if you have what it takes to keep loving someone who abuses that love, they will just keep cutting you down and making you smaller and less able to function. Sometimes the death of love will save your life in a really literal way.


Too much responsibility

As a teen I really took on board the idea that we can only have freedom and power in so far as we are willing to take responsibility. On the whole, I’ve found that a useful approach to life. As with all things, you can end up with too much of it. Too much responsibility does not translate into too much power, or too much freedom. There’s a point somewhere on the scale when a lot of responsibility means a loss of power and a closing down of options.

If responsibility is taken by someone who does not have the means to deliver on it, there are going to be problems. Being given responsibilities in a job, or a relationship, but denied the resources to deal with those responsibilities, is a crushing thing.

There are things we definitely cannot and should not be made responsible for. Other people’s inner lives are a case in point. We are responsible for how we treat each other. We owe each other basic care and respect. We owe it to each other to listen and try to factor in each other’s needs and issues. However, too much responsibility for someone else’s feelings and thoughts puts you in a place of powerlessness and may be deeply harming. If I am kind, careful and respectful and it still isn’t enough… If it is my job to magically know what others want and need, without being told… If it is my job to twist myself in knots trying to give someone else what they want… responsibility becomes a noose around my neck. I’ve been here, and making a person this responsible for someone else’s feelings is a form of emotional control, and pretty abusive stuff.

Sometimes, if we take on too much responsibility, we deny someone else the opportunity to grow and flourish. Parents who try to do everything for their kids mean well, but do not allow their children to discover and own their own power. If we take on too much responsibility for someone else’s life, we can take power from them, undermine their dignity and sense of autonomy.

If we make ourselves responsible for things we cannot have any say in, we can drive ourselves mad. A person suffering from anxiety may feel that everything has to be perfect, even when many things are beyond their control. Not being able to make things perfect may cause a great deal of fear. On its own, this may seem preposterous, but when you factor in what happens to people when they are made responsible for things beyond their control, continuing with those expectations even after the situation has ended, is not so irrational. Who knows who else might want the same level of responsibility from you?

It is good to pause now and then and ask what we’ve shouldered, and whether we should still be carrying it.


Dealing with being overwhelmed

The point at which you are overwhelmed is not the ideal time to be trying to find a strategy for dealing with this kind of thing. It is as well to have some plans in place before you are struck down. If you suffer from poor mental or physical health, you may be especially vulnerable to becoming overloaded. Here are some things I’ve noticed that I hope may prove helpful to others.

Rest is the best antidote to being overwhelmed. However, if everything is getting on top of you, then you may feel too panicked to rest, or unable to stop. If you are overloaded for too long, you may not remember how to stop, much less when to do it. It is important to plan rest time in advance if you think things are going to be tough. It’s good to be in the habit of planning rest time and setting time aside for it so that you have reminders that this is a thing you need to do. It’s surprising how easy it is to forget this in a crisis.

Good things can also be overwhelming. I find this one all too easy to forget and am often caught out by it. Good things need processing and digesting too, and need recovery time.

Know what helps you process things and cope. For some of us, reading, or walking, or crafting can be a quick route back to sanity. Know what works, and make sure that the people around you also know what works. That way, if you are overwhelmed and unable to think straight, someone else may be able to steer you towards the wool, or the woods, as required.

Planning ahead is good – if you know something is likely to be tough, planning the rest and recovery time is a good idea. Pacing is good – pay attention to your limits and respect them more of the time than not and you may be able to stay on top of things. However, it is so easy to be knocked sideways by the unexpected, and you can’t see everything coming. Try to keep some slack in your routines so that you can deal with the unexpected. Don’t be hard on yourself if you’re caught out by things you didn’t anticipate.

Anyone can be overloaded. A person who is overloaded too much and for too long will find their mental and physical health deteriorating. None of us cope with this well. There is no shame in being unable to bear the unbearable. There should be considerably more shame attendant on piling stress onto people, with unreasonable deadlines, impossible workloads, unfair demands on time and so forth. There should be considerable shame in asking people to act like everything is on fire, every day. Too many employers do it. The government does it to us as well.


Lessons in self care

A change in the routine can really flag up the things that work, and the things that do not. When you mostly do the same things day to day, it isn’t always obvious what affect any given activity or strategy really has. A bit of chaos can be rather educational. Here are some things I’ve learned recently about what works for me. I have no idea how any of it would work for anyone else, so ignore what doesn’t suit and cherry pick anything you think might be helpful…

Quiet, dark spaces for sleeping in really aren’t negotiable for me. Without a peaceful and secure sleep space, I sleep badly, and everything else is much, much harder.

When I am exhausted I become emotionally overwhelmed. Everything becomes too much and threatens to make me cry. I need space and quiet time to rebalance myself. People I feel close to can help, but dealing with strangers gets really tough.

No amount of looking good makes it worth the toll taken by a day in uncomfortable clothing, or shoes.

Sometimes, doing nothing at all is wonderful.

Everything is easier when I’m in the company of excellent people.

Social media does me no harm at all. I feel no benefit being away from it. Too much crap in the news, and getting embroiled with trolls and drama llamas does me no good at all. Using social media to while away time when I’m bored or low isn’t good for me. The key is to use it well.

Good things also take time to process. Events require rest and recovery.

Populating a blog with 500 word pieces every day takes a lot of effort, so this week I may be writing smaller, pithier things. Sometimes, less is more.


Storing up spoons

I’ve got a big event coming up next weekend (Asylum in Lincoln) so am in the process of trying to get ready. For me, event preparation isn’t just about what to pack and what to say in workshops, or the set list for the castle stage (late Saturday afternoon, should you happen to be there!). Event preparation is about trying to make sure I have the energy I’ll need to get through the event and some rest time after it.

This has affected how I work for the entirety of August. I’ve been doing things here and there to make sure this last week isn’t a mad dash of covering for the days when I won’t be able to work online. I’ve been doing things to improve my chances of getting some time off after the event. There will be no late nights this week, socialising outside of the event is not an option. I’m budgeting in rest time. If I’m tired when I land at an event, the whole process is harder. This is an intensive three day event in the offing plus travelling on the days on either side of that. I will need all the spoons I can get.

Obviously life doesn’t always give me these options. I don’t always know when an exhausting thing is in the offing. I can’t always pace myself for a month to make sure I can handle a bigger thing. Sometimes I just have to deal with what comes up, and recover afterwards, without having planned for that recovery time. It is not easy juggling spoons and working. It is even harder jugging spoons and working when something unexpected and demanding gets into the mix.

I have less trouble with this than I used to – partly because my energy levels have improved a bit in the last few years. Partly because I’ve become very good at forward planning. Even when there’s nothing going on, I pace myself, I try to make sure I don’t wear myself out unless I am totally sure I can spend the next day in a limp heap. I’ve also got better at figuring out how to have those limp heap days. This in turn means that most of the time I can have a social life, and having a social life improves my overall resilience.

None of this is terribly obvious from the outside. The forward planning, and the cost afterwards aren’t noticeable to other people, when I get things right. I have no doubt the same is true of many other people who have got good and reliable strategies and know how to work around their own limitations. Of course not all energy limitations are predictable, either. If I have a really bad patch, all bets are off. For some people, there is no predictability so there’s no scope to outthink the problem.

People who see me at events will see an up-beat, communicative, outgoing person. Unless someone is dealing with me in a much more personal way, they won’t see my coping mechanisms and they won’t see what happens when I stop coping. On the whole, that suits me, but I’m aware it can create a misleading impression. It’s important to me to mention this, because you can’t see from the outside what’s going on with anyone and they may not choose to show you. If your first encounter is when they run out of options, it may be hard to believe what you’re seeing, if you never thought there was anything wrong. Knowing that people can have invisible energy issues can make it easier to respond well when you run into that.


Emotion and responsibility

How much should we hold people responsible for our emotions? And how responsible should we be for other people’s emotional responses to us? This is a question that is so often relevant in situations of bullying. Bullies often treat their victims as responsible for how the bully feels, and for what they do, while taking no responsibility for how their behaviour impacts on the other person. “You made me do it” is a really problematic thought, an act of victim blaming. Equally I’ve seen memes suggesting that no one else can make us feel anything and how we feel is totally our own responsibility and I find that unhelpful, too.

We all have feelings, and we all respond to what we encounter. We all hold responsibility for ourselves, and some degree of responsibility for how what we do impacts on others. I think the first question to ask here, is whether the person being blamed can choose to do differently. For example, if someone in your household is loud when you need to sleep, they probably don’t need to be loud and it may be fair to expect they can stop being loud. Their loudness isn’t necessary to them, your sleep is necessary to you. At the same time, your need for sleep is not something you have control over, nor is how you feel when sleep deprived.

However, sometimes we may make people responsible for things they have no power over. If I find you very attractive, and I make you responsible for that feeling and act like because of it, you owe me love, or sex, this is not ok. Whether or not you find me attractive in turn is not something you can choose. How your face is, does not make you responsible for how I feel about your face.

It is fair to ask a person to take responsibility for the feelings they cause in some contexts. If you shout abuse at a person, you are responsible for making them feel like shit, for example. It is not usually fair to make someone else responsible for how you behave in response to your feelings. If your feelings lead to violent responses for example, the violence is your responsibility, not caused by the other person. If your feelings leave you needing to act protectively, it’s worth remembering that this is your choice because if you feel like you’re just reacting, that can leave you feeling powerless.

Power and responsibility are very much linked to each other. The person who takes no responsibility will likely feel they have no power in a situation. This may encourage them to keep making other people responsible, and to be angry about how powerless they feel, without having looked at how they are giving power away. Most of the time, most of us have choices about how to respond. If you don’t, then that’s a serious red flag. If you don’t feel safe about responding by changing things so that they would be better for you, look carefully at what’s going on. If you feel so obliged to humour another person that you regularly do so at the cost of not meeting your own most basic needs, there is a problem. Not wanting to choose differently is not the same as not being able to, although we may tell ourselves otherwise.

When it comes to behaviour, you should feel free and able to choose how to react, respond and express yourself. If you feel someone else is ‘making’ you behave in certain ways, look hard at this. If they have that much power over you and you have no scope to choose, you should seek help, because that level of control is abusive. If you’re making someone else responsible for your actions because you feel like it’s their job to take your emotional backlashes and answer your every need, then the problem is you, and you may need help to change.

One way or another, if you cannot control your own behaviour in a situation, seek help, and if you cannot tell if you are the bully or the victim, get professional advice. A belief that you have no power doesn’t always mean that you are the victim. Some of the most bullying people I’ve encountered had stories about how it was other people ‘making’ them act in certain ways. It can be really convenient to cast yourself as powerless if you want to spend time hurting people. It can be an easy way to control well-meaning people, who will try harder to make you feel better every time you tell them they are responsible for what you do. It’s a hard thing to deal with, and no doubt a hard thing to see in yourself and undertake to change.

If you’re seeing this from the outside and cannot tell if a person is a victim or a perpetrator, encourage them to seek professional help – either way, they need it.


Self Care and Self Esteem

For people with low self esteem, self care is not something that automatically seems important. When you don’t feel much sense of self worth, putting your needs first is difficult. If everything else around you seems more important than you are, taking care of yourself is hard, and maybe you won’t get round to that until you’re too sick, exhausted, burned out and broken to have any option but to stop.

At this point, helpful people telling you that you should take better care of yourself can feel like further proof of how useless you are. Of course if you’d been any good you’d have done all the things AND the self care and wouldn’t be letting everyone down by falling over… So let me suggest that if you want to help someone who needs to do a better job of self care, telling them off or making them feel useless is likely to push them the other way. If you want to tell someone else that it is their fault they are crashing and burning, think carefully about what this might do to them.

For some people, there’s an extra layer of horribleness here. If you’ve dealt with abuse, then you may well have learned that doing anything for you is dangerous. If you’ve been verbally or physically punished for taking care of your own needs, or ever trying to put your own needs ahead of those of your abuser, self care may feel dangerous. There may be mental health backlashes when you do try to care for yourself. You may experience a great deal of anxiety around self care – and if you haven’t examined the mechanics of why that happens, you might not know it isn’t because self care is a bad thing when you do it. Facing down old memories to build a new perspective is hard work and something to do gently.

If this sounds like you, let me mention that everyone deserves to have their basic needs met. If you feel fear, queasiness, distress, or frozen up in face of the idea of self care, there’s probably something in your history that has badly undermined you. However, with time, and care and gentleness, you can rebuild, and looking after yourself can stop being a fearful thing. You are entitled to that.

It’s easy for people who haven’t been round something like this to get frustrated, and cross, with people who struggle in this way. People who cannot take care of their own needs can be frustrating to deal with. It can be horrible watching someone march grimly towards their next inevitable crash. But none of that makes it a good idea to get angry with people who struggle on this score. Telling someone off will only reinforce their low self esteem. Blaming them for the vicious circles they are trapped in will only add to their low self esteem. Broken self esteem is a serious affliction. Blaming a person for the consequences is like blaming someone who injures themselves sometimes because they have poor co-ordination.

Encouragement is good. Reminding people of what they are worth, and that they deserve not only the most basic of life sustaining things, but also nice things, is good. Showing up and being and doing the nice things can also help. Doing it once doesn’t magically fix everything. If you want to help someone climb out of a hole, that takes time, and a lot of care to help offset where there’s been a shortage of care. Patience is key here. Broken self esteem is a much harder fix than broken bones and takes a good deal longer.


Self esteem and childhood

Most people develop their self esteem in childhood. A child who is loved, praised, supported and encouraged will have a sense of their own entitlement to exist. Many children however get their self esteem crushed early, or never get to develop much sense of self worth. Obviously, abusive families will damage their children, but there are other sources for this, too.

Many families don’t set out to harm the next generation, but pass on family truths, stories and patterns. They may think they are protecting a child by stopping them from getting unrealistic ideas, above their station. They may have a child who doesn’t fit the family narrative about what’s ok – a queer child, a left handed child, a neuro-divergent child, a child who is too quick, or too slow, or thinks too much or moves too much… Landing in a family that cannot understand your very nature does not make for a good start in life. There’s no malice here, but incomprehension can be pretty damaging.

I’ve met adults who were told at school they were stupid, or lazy, and didn’t get a dyslexia diagnoses until much later in life. I’ve met kids who were set back because no one realised they needed glasses. I’ve also met a lot of kids who had clearly learned some really unhelpful things at home – violent kids, and kids so spoiled they didn’t know how to deal well with anyone else. I’ve never met an ugly, useless or evil child, but I have met plenty of kids who were either treated that way, and thus growing into those roles, or learning problematic ways of being.

We’re learning from the moment we’re born, if not sooner. Every sound and movement from the beginning shapes our sense of the world and our ideas about who we are. Well meaning families can still produce children with no self confidence. Families who take against a child can do massive damage.

As an adult, there’s nothing you can do to go back and change your beginnings. Trying to talk about it with those who were there isn’t always helpful. But I think trying to understand the mechanics can be good. If your family didn’t allow you to grow up happily as yourself, trying to understand why they did that can be productive. It’s easy to end up with a short answer of ‘I wasn’t good enough’ but I invite you to consider whether you can imagine another human being who was not born good enough. If your shortcomings feel vague and hard to pin down, if you just, for some reason, didn’t seem to deserve love, or attention, support or praise then it probably wasn’t about you. It should have been about you, of course.

If you take out the assumption that there was something intrinsic in you to explain why you didn’t have a good experience of growing up, it becomes easier to see what was going on. It can be much easier to let go, when you can find a different perspective on this. It can be easier to forgive, where that’s appropriate, to recognise abuse, where that’s the size of it. The emotional neglect of a child is a form of abuse. It may be that your parents in turn were emotionally neglected and don’t even know where to start. Sometimes these things have their roots deep in our ancestry.

Tell yourself a new story, about how you were as inherently acceptable as any other child ever born, but your environment didn’t really work for you. Imagine what the right environment for you would have looked like. Consider how you can make that for yourself, now. Do some of the things that were missing. Find people who can play the roles you need people to play. Know that growing up feeling like a failure doesn’t make you a failure, and is not a truth about the sort of person you are.